The wine industry's on an upswing thanks to so many Americans drinking more vino. And if you think you've heard that factoid before, well, you have — for 14 years running.
According to a 2007 report from the Wine Market Council, adult per capita wine consumption in the U.S. has been steadily growing since 1994, and we're currently at an all-time high. Don't be surprised if you experience déjà vu all over again when they release a study for 2008.
Michael Fine sure won't. In fact, he's counting on it.
Fine's Cellar, 7051 East Fifth Avenue, Scottsdale
Duck confit bratwurst: $9
Short rib: $19
480-994-FINE (3463), web link Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
As one of the most prominent wine advocates and connoisseurs in the Valley, Fine knows the facts behind fermentation, the attributes of terroir, the most vigorous vintages. And as an entrepreneur, he's doing his best to make it all accessible to the general drinking public.
Fine's name might sound familiar: He's the former owner of Sportsman's Fine Wines & Spirits, the popular local retailer, and he recently launched his own wine-themed radio show on 1310 KXAM. But the biggest buzz on Fine these days is Fine's Cellar, the restaurant he opened in Scottsdale at the beginning of the year.
Fine's Cellar is an ambitious, multi-faceted project. Tucked amid the galleries and shops along Fifth Avenue's retail stretch, it's part bistro, part wine bar, and part wine boutique. For good measure, there's an espresso and gelato bar, too. You can stop in for a breakfast wrap, perhaps a salad or panino for a casual lunch, an à la carte dinner, a multi-course tasting menu, or just a simple snack — all of which were created by executive chef Cullen Campbell (Camus, Atlas Bistro, House of Tricks, etc.) to pair with wine.
It's kind of a low-key extension of nearby Stetson Drive, which has become a burgeoning restaurant row, from Kyoto at the north end to FoodBar at the south. The vibe is a relaxed and stylish take on "cellar," with a diagonal grid of wine storage bins along the wall in the dining room, and a sheer curtain of metallic beads partitioning off the retail area, where there are 900 different bottles. Meanwhile, the allure of the back patio is the weather — at least for now. At night, white table linens, dim lighting, and a balmy breeze make it the more romantic place to hang out.
Service wasn't flawless, but it was generally smooth and consistently welcoming. Memorably, I encountered a gracious wine steward who helped my dining companions navigate the California-heavy wine list (which offers tastes, glasses, and bottles), as well as one charming server who gave great recommendations.
Though this place is sure to attract wine geeks, the food is worth a try — I sampled several solid options, a couple of things I'll pass on next time, and a few standouts that will appeal to foodies.
Steamed Penn Cove mussels were a hit, generously piled in a square bowl. They were served in a fragrant roasted beet broth (so good I could've slurped it up like soup), along with slices of grilled baguette that soaked up the savory juices. Another popular starter was a mound of homemade, crinkle-cut sweet potato fries. They immediately nudged their way to the top of my favorites list, not only for their perfect texture (fluffy inside, crispy outside), but also for the unusual dipping sauces that came with them. It was three kinds of aioli: tangy aged balsamic-barolo, sundried tomato-grenache, and vanilla, which almost pushed those fries into dessert territory. We gobbled them up in a flash.
Mac and cheese three ways (blue cheese, truffled, and carbonara) was scrumptious, too, but I had to laugh at how much food it was, especially compared to the petite, elegant serving of homemade duck confit bratwurst. The former was enough for a few people to try, while the latter was the kind of dish you'll want to keep all to yourself. And if, like me, you wind up in a situation where you've agreed ahead of time to share it, expect to nibble at the tiniest bites. Same goes with the orincini, a golden, lightly crisp ball of fried risotto with a heart of oozy Humboldt Fog goat cheese. It was paired with a salad of fresh arugula tossed in truffled balsamic vinaigrette.
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There were some stumbles with the entrees. Scottish salmon, with braised greens, oven-dried tomatoes, and pinot noir reduction, didn't sound remarkable to begin with, and as it turned out, the fish was not very moist. Seared ahi, resting in a pool of apple cherry root purée and chive broth, had a fine flavor, but the entire dish was lukewarm. And though there technically wasn't anything wrong with the chicken and saffron risotto — indeed, the brown sugar-cured poultry was juicy — it was boring. Sweet peas and carrot essence weren't enough to jazz up the flavors.
Plump gnocchi with roasted butternut squash, brown butter, and rosemary, topped with fried sage, was a better choice. Better still was the braised beef short rib, a melt-in-your-mouth hunk of meat served with nebbiolo reduction. Crispy polenta fries and bacon vinaigrette made a whimsical, fun-to-eat side dish. Even more decadent was the Maple Leaf Farms seared leg of duck, whose crisp skin had a nice caramelized taste. Wild mushrooms, creamy Yukon potato purée, and tangy Syrah reduction amplified the earthy appeal of rich duck meat.
After practically licking the wine reduction off our plates, my dining companions and I were craving something chocolate-y, and faced with the tough choice between affogato bread pudding or chocolate fritters, we ultimately voted for the bread pudding. Wow — what a knockout dessert, drowned in a shot of espresso and topped with a scoop of housemade chocolate gelato. It was sweet and bitter and hot and cold all at once, not for the faint of heart. To cleanse our palates, we also tried the olive oil poached pear, a plate of lightly sweet sliced fruit, sprinkled with crushed pistachios and accompanied by pistachio gelato.
Although I think Fine's Cellar has a few things to polish up, I still think it's a nice addition to the neighborhood — one that, hopefully, will age nicely.